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Snowy Owls Among Us!!

Photo Group
Snowy Owl
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

In late November of 2011 a buzz started across the Northern and Central United States- Snowy Owls started showing up early and in large numbers. The owls were big news and covered on local news, national news and NPR just to name a few. People everywhere were flocking to see the owls. There have been over 30 reports across Missouri and locally Smithville Lake peaked with 5 owls on December 23. The weekend of January 7th, volunteers set up their scopes at Smithville Lake Eagle Days and in two days over 3000 people viewed these magnificent white birds from the north. Everyone was asking, “why are they here?’

The short answer is, they are here looking for food. Snowy Owls live in the Arctic. On the Arctic tundra, the diet of Snowy Owls primarily consists of lemmings, small rodents indigenous to the area. Snowy Owls will eat around 5 or more lemmings a day - over 1500 a year! Approximately every 3 to 5 years, the lemming population will “crash” to a level where many owls, primarily juveniles and females, are forced south to look for food. Missouri may get an owl or two during these years, but the numbers this year are unprecedented. This southward movement by the owls outside of their normal range is called an ‘irruption.’

Most arrive starving and weary from their journey and many will not make it back home. One owl collected at the downtown airport weighed less than 2lbs. That is less than 50% of their normal body weight. Life here is very different for them than on the tundra. Possibly, the most significant, is traffic. Many Snowy Owls have been victims of collisions.

If you have the chance to see a Snowy Owl, enjoy it! This is a rare and exciting opportunity to view a beautiful bird from the northernmost areas of the world! Remember though, the owls have seen more Polar Bears than people prior to their irruption south. Make sure you are watching them from a good distance. Anytime someone gets too close (closer than 100-150 feet) they are risking interfering with the owl’s hunting. This can be life or death for these starving animals. Snowy Owls hunt by sitting, often on the ground, and waiting for their prey. They have excellent eyesight and hearing and, unlike other owls, are active during daylight hours. Approaching an owl too closely can stress the bird and cause it to expend energy that may turn the odds of survival against it.

By Mary Nemecek & Linda Williams